We were happy to be interviewed for the BBC’s iPM programme (Radio 4, Saturdays, 5.30pm) on the topic of Jack Straw’s announcement that court records will be made available online.
Now, the Free Our Data campaign is, strictly speaking, about non-personal data: we argue that should be made available for free re-use. When you’re talking about court records, that’s rather different: it’s about as personal as you can make it.
But there is a wider principle, which is that it seems to us good if the government is wrapping its collective head around the idea that data can be useful, and that the assumption should be that data are made available, rather than kept secret.
Some lawyers argue in the piece that the court records are riddled with inaccuracies. Obviously, that would have to be ironed out.
But there’s a wider point: newspapers now have online archives, and they don’t delete them. (It’s a principle at The Guardian, for example, that we don’t change what’s on the site without very good reason.) That means that these records are going to be there, even if the government doesn’t make them available.
To be honest, Lord Falconer’s argument that articles relating to high-profile court cases should be removed from online news archives because of the risk of prejudicing trials is simply untenable. It won’t happen. Bloggers will write things. American sites will collect data. Google’s cache holds data. The Wayback Machine holds the data. Once on the internet, data tends to survive. Falconer’s suggestion is typical of people who can’t conceive that the internet has changed the idea of access to data completely.
My suggestion is that, given these facts, we simply need to move to a situation like the US: where juries are sequestered, and told to try people only on the facts of the case (as they are here too, of course).
Of course besides making it easier to retain data, the internet makes it easier to spread it – and, potentially, create businesses from it. Which is also what this campaign is about.